Black (and Other) History Month

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

As it’s Black History Month, I’ve been watching various documentaries and films about the history of African Americans in this country.  Though many of these go over familiar territory, I still find myself being jolted awake to some aspect of history I haven’t been aware of or simply to the force of that history.  At the same time, the echoes of African American history strike me with parallels to the present, with examples of how the past is indeed prologue.  Is present still.

I’ve been struck by the courage of the Freedom Riders and civil rights activists who faced prison, violence and the threat of death in their efforts to overturn segregation.  At the same time I can’t help but be aware that there are so many Republican backed measures now in state legislatures designed to keep certain portions of the population from voting, particularly the young, the poor and racial minorities.  I’ve been struck by the fortitude and dignity of Jackie Robinson as depicted in “42,” his courage to not fight back and how his efforts led to the desegregation of baseball and other professional sports.  And yet, I can’t help but see the ways President Barack Obama, literally the most powerful man in the world, still acts as if he too must have the courage not to fight back, not to say what he truly believes, not to speak directly about race.  The restrictions of being “the first African American” in many ways still hold (and certainly the myriad attempts to de-legitimize his Presidency rise from the same deep well of American racism).  And then, on another level, I can’t help but see the arguments launched against Michael Sam as the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft as echoing many of the arguments against Jackie Robinson’s presence in professional baseball.  Prejudice speaks the same language.

To me, Black History Month is alive, a breathing presence in my life.  As an Asian American, I feel that history is my history too, and my writings stem from that history and from the specific history of African American literature.

And yet, how often do we hear whites say, Why do we have to keep going over the past?  We’ve come so far.  Things are not like they were.  Why don’t you people let these things go?

I often think that being a person of color in this country is like being the one person in a dysfunctional family who refuses to be in denial about what has gone down in that family, who remembers the traumas and abuses of the past, who saw and still sees the elephant in the living room.  Yes, that one person sees the truth of the past, but seeing that truth comes at a cost.  In a way, that one person is carrying the truth of the family’s pain and abuse for all the other members of the family.  The rest of the family refuses the burdens of carrying their portion of the truth.  And the one person who sees and tells the truth ends up feeling ostracized; that person is the crazy one, not the rest of the family.

But what happens when a sibling or spouse or parent goes into treatment or therapy and then comes out of denial and also acknowledges the truth?  Suddenly the person who has been declaring the truth of the family feels lighter, less burdened.  That person feels affirmed, less crazy, more sane.  Someone else has acknowledge the truth; the person is no longer alone.

In general, America, and not just white America, goes about its business as if Native Americans do not exist in the present, as if the portions of our history regarding Native Americans are long past.  But if you are a Native American, especially a Native American on reservation?  Certainly, you know you are alive, and you know the rest of America in many ways, wishes that you were dead, because if you are dead, America doesn’t have to deal with the fact that all of us are living on stolen land, land stolen by means of genocide.   As a Native American you live with the results of that history every day; the whole reservation is a result of that history, is evidence of that history.  How can you forget that history?  And if you did try to forget that history, who would you be?  Who would be your ancestors?  To forget that history would be to forget the people who came before you and made your life possible, would be to live as a ghost unattached to anything that your father and mother and grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents lived through.  That is the price the rest of America wants you to pay to become part of America.

At this point in history, white America can’t even get rid of the racist moniker of a pro football team.  How can white American possibly deal with the true history of what America has done to Native Americans?

And yet, what would happen if we all did remember that history, what would happen if we all did acknowledge that history?   What would that look like?  How would that change this country?

As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead.  It is not even past.”  Forgetting history is a political act.  Remembering history is a political act.  There is no neutral non-political position towards history.  A country that would pay reparations for slavery is a different country than one that has not done so.

The German critic Walter Benjamin observed that history is most often the tale of the victors.  In other words, history has traditionally served those in power.  To change history, to tell the tales left out of our histories, to remember the history we want to forget—that does not serve those in power.  And that is why many white people want to forget history.  They want to keep the spoils of that history—both materially and psychically.  They do not want to be burdened by what people of color carry.  They want us to continue to be their psychic sherpas.


Everyone knows the image of the sherpa who hauls the tools and supplies for the leader of the expedition.  How this leader will be white, the sherpa dark.  An Englishman, a Tibetan.  The one known, the other anonymous.  The one lightened of burden, the other bearing the burden of both.

Yes, we understand this job in its physical sense.

But does it mean to serve as a psychic sherpa?  To carry the unpleasant emotions and memories of another?  For one person to be weighted down by darkness, depression, madness, so the other may be lighter, happier and sane?

Do people of color carry in our psyches the memories and burdens of our history so that whites can live in amnesia–without the burdens such memories entail?  Do we take in realities whites do not have to see and thus take up?  And how does all this affect the mental energies we must put out in order to function in our lives?

Separate.  Unequal.  The realities, the history, we carry.

(from The Last Incantations, my book of poetry out in March, 2014 from Northwestern University Press)

4 thoughts on “Black (and Other) History Month

  1. The only thing that upsets me about this, is the way that it is written, in order to enlighten, yet it bunches white America into a group of people that basically has one face. The face of white entitlement. Exactly one of the things that the civil rights movement fought against was the judgement of a person by race. I find it counter productive to the idea that is trying to be addressed, but it really it doesn’t matter all that much because what bothers me, the emotional crap that I carry, the things that irritate me, are my problem nobody else’s. I can put it down that burden any time, and it is usually when I see how much it is holding me back from the possibilities of a new world with out the burden.

  2. To my mind, I’m addressing various definitions of whiteness in my piece. And in a way, Kari, you acknowledge that. While an individual white person may descry the existence of white privilege or entitlement, that still doesn’t keep that individual from being bestowed certain privileges or entitlements by the society and its practices. Whiteness as a position in the American social hierarchy and within the context of social practice cannot be eluded or escaped any more than blackness or being Asian.

    On another level, whiteness has been defined traditionally and currently by certain social practices and ways of thinking concerning race. One of those particular social practices and ways of thinking involves a relationship to certain portions of our history. Those particular social practices and ways of thinking are capable of being changed, and individual whites may be able to take up a relationship to historical memory that is similar to that of many of people of color. But if I look, for instance, at the cultural production of white authors, I see very few instances of that, even in terms of products by liberal or “well-meaning” whites (c.f., The Help or Steven Spielberg’s Amistad).

    Beyond this, Afro-pessimists, such as Frank Wilderson in his Red, White & Black: Cinema and the structure of U.S. Antagonism, put forth the argument that whiteness, blackness and, in Wilderson’s book, redness, are ontological positions that cannot be altered without a radical restructuring of society, and that no particular individual alone can alter those positions, whether it be the individual white person, black person or indigenous person.

    Finally, to assume speaking of whites as a group with speaking of people of color as a group is to ignore the context of such an approach. In cultural productions, white individuality–the uniqueness of the individual white person– is assumed whereas portrayals of people of color are more limited and often stereotypical. In contrast, many whites find anathema any discussion of how their membership in the society as white people shapes their social interactions and the ways they think of themselves. Whereas most people of color are very aware that they are members of a group and are treated as such. White characters in fiction do not have to be identified as white; white as the white default universal underlies this practice; so does an assumption that the white character’s race is not essential or important to understanding or contextualizing that character and does not play a significant role in how the character sees him or herself. Many writers of color would disagree with these assumptions. But white writers continue with this practice, most without ever thinking about its implications. (It’s useful to note that white South African writers do not write with such assumptions, in part because the history of race within their society cannot be ignored in the ways white Americans ignore their own history–and present.)

  3. In your above, you mention the idea of white being a default that does not need to be stated (in the US anyway). My question is, is it even possible to apply this to other ethnicities in order to break that assumption?

    There are times when I have a very specific image in mind of a character, but it breaks the flow of the narrative to detail this out in any particular way, whether it’s to state an ethnicity (which doesn’t work in some genres like fantasy where the characters may not even be human so to specify a African or Middle Easterner wouldn’t really work) or to try to describe physical appearance (which almost always comes across as awkward and forced) or to try to use some other kind of identifying characteristic (perhaps an specific cultural name) but if the reader does not know the source of the name, then that is a lost ethnic marker.

    There are also times, of course, when I have no specific ethnicity in mind and want the reader to be able to fill in their own details, but because the pervasiveness of ‘white default’ *is* so pervasive, not stating it is tantamount to saying “white!”

    So is there any hope of having an actual *zero default* assumption? Can I write without ethnic indicators? Or is the reality of our society that the only way to be inclusive is to be very specific and not leave it up to the reader?

    Maybe I just need to include art with my stories…

  4. Eliza — This is a complex aesthetic–and political–issue. Various writers of color have handled this issue in any number of ways, too manifold for me to describe here. Unfortunately, most white writing teachers aren’t aware of this issue or how writers of color have decided to deal with it, and so can’t instruct their students of color. I will mention one way of addressing the issue of racial/ethnic identity, and that has to do with the question, Who is the narrator telling the tale to? If the narrator is telling the tale to someone who knows the characters or the narrator or to the narrator’s own community, the narrator can sometimes tell the tale without having to mark the race or ethnicity of the character since the narrator’s audience already knows this. For the writer of color then, this means that the narrator is not telling the story to a white audience. (In The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao, though the narrator Junior does identify himself as Dominican, Junior is telling the tale to other Dominican Americans of his generation–hence, he doesn’t translate the Spanish or explain certain things.)

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